Using data to tell stories — on deadline

By David McKie

Normally, I dislike leads that contain questions.

But stories that use data to drive the narrative usually begin with the journalist asking a question. So here are a few.

By David McKie

Normally, I dislike leads that contain questions.

But stories that use data to drive the narrative usually begin with the journalist asking a question. So here are a few.

  • Which Ontario hospital CEO received the largest pay raise between 2007 and 2011?
  • In which area of your city is a thief most likely to steal a bike?
  • In which area of the city are you most likely to get a parking ticket?
  • How safe is your food?
  • What are some of the most common reasons why certain models of cars are recalled?
  • And how many accidents do distracted drivers cause?

Answers to these questions produced original, thought-provoking and prominently-played stories for news outlets, including Postmedia News and the CBC.

The common element in all the stories was data:

CEO salaries posted online; Ottawa bike-theft stats obtained from the police force's website; parking-ticket data from Ottawa and Halifax obtained through freedom-of-information requests; food recall stats downloaded from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website; data downloaded from Transport Canada's website; and accident statistics obtained from provincial ministries of transport.

Working with the data was fairly simple in each case — startlingly simple, to be honest. One of the biggest challenges was getting the data.

With an increasing number of governments and institutions at all levels making data available, either online, simply for the asking, or through more formal process such as access-to-information, it makes great sense for journalists to develop new reflexes when pondering ways to tell original stories. In short, think data! Where can you get it? And how can it help tell stories, or at the very least, provide questions that will lead to an original treatment of an ongoing story?

Shrinking newsroom budgets make it difficult for journalists to receive the in-house training they need, which is why sessions at the April 27-29, Canadian Association of Journalists' conference in Toronto becomes an excellent investment.

Visiting the association's website reveals a program full of great learning opportunities, as well as the ability to network with other journalists and, just perhaps, perspective employers. The discussion about data journalism kicks off on Friday with a panel discussion that yours truly, the Ottawa Citizen's Glen McGregor, and The University of King's College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones will be leading at the Fairmont Royal York, where most of the conference will take place.

Our introductory session will feature story ideas, like the ones mentioned above, and others, that you'll be able to take back to your newsroom.

Then the three of us will continue  with a day-long session on Saturday, April 28, and a half-day session on April 29 at Ryerson University's computer lab. We will teach the data journalism, or computer-assisted reporting techniques  that were used to get those stories discussed on Friday using tools such as Excel, Google's Fusion Tables and ArcMap. Some knowledge of Excel and mapping will help, but these skills are not prerequisites! Just come and learn.

You'll emerge from the sessions more knowledgeable, ready to impress your bosses, and less dependent on the staged events and political talking points that dominate the content people consume.

With the proliferation of the number of people calling themselves journalists these days, it becomes essential for us to find ways to distinguish ourselves from the bloggers and the countless individuals inhabiting the social media landscape.

Learning to harness the data that is easily accessible becomes one of the best ways we can increase our professionalism and, perhaps even more importantly, serve our audiences.

So, please, join us.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at david_mckie(at),  Glen McGregor at sushiboy21(at) or Fred Vallance-Jones at fvjones(at)

We hope to see you there.

David McKie is an investigative reporter in CBC News' Parliamentary bureau, editor of the Canadian Association of Journalists' Media magazine and editor of J-Source's Ideas section. If there's a topic you feel I should discuss, don't hesitate to contact me.